This week…..well, I hope you’ll bear with me. If you thought previous episodes were extraordinarily geeky, this one may set a new standard.

Last week we talked to Dr. Susan Friedman about motivation, and the concept of motivating operations came up… but we never really defined it. I feel like motivation and motivating operations are such a big idea, it’s worth pulling them apart and taking a few episodes to unpack. I hope you also think so. And I’m going to do my best to convince you that this isn’t all a big waste of time. This is one of those things that I think if we can all wrap our heads around it, it will move the whole field forward.

What is a motivating Operation? A bunch of unnecessary jargon?

A motivating operation describes how the value of reinforcement changes under certain circumstances.

This is a concept that was originally described by Dr. Jack Michael in 1980s:
A motivating operation changes how much you “want” the reinforcer and how hard you are willing to “work” to get it.

In fact, it’s considered the “fourth” term in the contingency, or you’ll sometimes see a 4-term contingency mentioned when reading.


Why does this matter?

We all know that motivation is critical to training. Reinforcement drives behavior. The more the animal wants the reinforcement the more he’s willing to work to earn it. That’s what gives us leverage. So knowing how motivation is working and changing with different variables lets us train more effectively.

Every trainer has a “bag of tricks” to increase motivation, usually with some narrative about how it works. But without a system that lets us really understand why and how some tricks work, it’s hard to make decisions when it comes to the individual.

Discussing the concept of motivating operations gives us a way to systematically talk about what we are seeing and doing.

It lets us point to the environmental conditions, things we can observe and measure, rather than guessing at an internal state. And that let’s us make better training plans!

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